Monday, October 24, 2016

"The Town will Fetch Two Small Pieces of Cannon" - Artillery in Lexington before April 19, 1775

We at Historical Nerdery were recently granted access to the 18th Century town meeting notes of Lexington, Massachusetts. Admittedly, we were reviewing the documents to reconstruct missing pieces of information about Captain John Parker’s Company. During our search, however, we found a couple of entries that peaked our interest….especially in light of the recent publication of J.L. Bell’s outstanding work “The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War”.

Lexington apparently owned two cannons on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

In his book, Mr. Bell discusses how Massachusetts residents were scrambling in late 1774 to obtain artillery pieces. Some of the guns, mostly iron cannons, were taken from coastal defenses around Boston and sent to Watertown. While there, two of the guns caught the attention of Lexington. Its residents quickly pressed the selectmen to acquire a pair of cannons for the town.

On November 3, 1774, the town selectmen relented and announced the issue would be addressed at the next town meeting. Specifically, “Upon a request of a numbre of Inhabitants to see if the Town will fetch two small pieces of cannon from Watertown, offered by said Town for the use of the Company in this Towne.”

A week later, the town approved the purchase of two guns. “Voted. . . to bring the two pieces of Cannon (mentioned in the warrant) from Watertown & mount them, at the at the Town charge.”

After approving the purchase of two cannons, in true Yankee fashion, the residents voted to create a committee to explore the cheapest methods of mounting of the guns on carriages and building of ammunition boxes. “That a Comtee of three persons go to Watertown & see what the cost of mounting sd pieces will be & whether the carriages cannot be made by work men in this town” It should be noted that the committee included Jonas Parker, an experienced woodworker and carpenter. Parker was later killed at the Battle of Lexington.

At some point after November 28, 1774, it received the two guns from Watertown. “Voted . . . that the Selectmen receive the two pieces of cannon with their beds [from] the Towne of Watertowne and give receipts for the same on behalf of the Towne.” By late February, 1775, Thomas Robbins of Lexington was already making ammunition cartridges for the guns. On February 27th, the town “Granted an ordere to pay Mr. Tho Robbins 1/9 in full for his trimming the (balls) & providing baggs to put them in.”

Unfortunately, what became of the guns after February 1775 is unknown. Lexington’s town meeting minutes from the Spring of 1775 were stolen years ago. Records from December 1775 through the remainder of the war do not mention the cannons. Shortly after the War for Independence, Lexington formed an artillery company. Whether the guns used were the same ones acquired from Watertown in 1774 remains a mystery.


  1. Excellent!

    In the same period, Watertown was having a debate over mounting two cannon. On 17 Oct 1774, the town meeting discussed "whether the town will mount & Equip two pieces of Cannon now lodged in the Town at their own Charge," and decided yes. That required another town meeting on 21 Nov to approve £20 for those carriages. (At the same meeting, the town approved only £15 for its schools.) Those guns were still not on carriages in early February, but on 20 February the town gave the go-ahead. Capt. John Barker reported seeing "2 pieces of Cannon" mounted on the bridge over the Charles River at Watertown on 30 March.

    I think the phrase "now lodged in the Town" suggests Watertown didn't think it owned those guns. So who did? One hypothesis is that they came from the Charlestown battery, emptied in early September. As of 1770, that battery had five guns, so two could have gone to Watertown for safekeeping, two to Lexington, one maybe to Cambridge. It's notable that the guns Lexington fetched came "with their beds," suggesting they were already mounted for ship or battery use. However, I don't know if the Charlestown battery guns would have qualified as "small."

    1. Thank you sir!

      I have to agree with you about the cannons possibly being mounted for ship or battery use. Lexington also voted on November 28, 1774 "£40 for the purpose of mounting the cannon" and references "carriages" several times.

      Of course, I curse the jerk who stole the town records from 75. But that's a story for another time.